Monday, March 30, 2009

Pure Philology

I woke up this morning at 2:30 with my brain on fire. That happens to me from time to time, particularly if the events of the previous day have been provoking. I went to choir practice in the afternoon and my friend Gordon spent part of the time trying to help the members of the choir comprehend that the words of hymns are not merely sounds to be articulated, but sentiments to be conveyed by the meaning of those words in combination with one another. As we went through the several verses of “Precious Savior, Dear Redeemer”, a hymn that we are going to sing on Easter Sunday, he asked about each noun, verb, adjective, and adverb, soliciting from us the meanings attached to them. Our practice was considerably improved.

Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, Thy sweet message now impart.
May thy Spirit, pure and fervid, Enter ev'ry timid heart;
Carry there the swift conviction, Turning back the sinful tide.
Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, May each soul in thee abide.

Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, We are weak but thou art strong;
In thy infinite compassion, Stay the tide of sin and wrong.
Keep thy loving arms around us; Keep us in the narrow way.
Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, Let us never from thee stray.

Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, Thou wilt bind the broken heart.
Let not sorrow overwhelm us; Dry the bitter tears that start.
Curb the winds and calm the billows; Bid the angry tempest cease.
Precious Savior, dear Redeemer, Grant us everlasting peace.

H.R Palmer

During the latter part of the Third Watch this morning, I began to think about my own response to language. I wondered if I, like J.R.R. Tolkien, could consider myself a pure philologist. “I like history”, he said in a letter to his son Christopher, “and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names.” Tolkien frequently spoke of his “linguistic aesthetic”, his predilection for certain kinds of sounds and rhythms in language that particularly pleased him. I find that I am not particularly satisfied with anything that I have writtn unless it can be read out loud, no matter how long a sentence may be, no matter how lengthy an essay may be; good writing is a joy to read out loud. In conjunction with the sounds and rhythm of any piece of prose or poetry is the flow of ideas that illuminate the mind and heart. This only comes when a writer actually has something to say, when he has felt or understood something profoundly. This, more often than not, is the great stumbling block for most erstwhile writers. Shakespeare’s MacBeth laments something of this meaningless prattle that many writers choose to serve up to their readers.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This, of course, is Gordon’s point exactly. To sing without the accompanying intended emotion subverts the whole point of performing.

I wrote earlier of John Denver’s “Perhaps Love”, a piece that was originally performed by Denver and Placido Domingo. Many years after the song first aired, John Denver performed “Perhaps Love” in a live concert somewhere in Southern California. A friend who was at the performance commented afterward that for some reason that particular version, just the singer and his guitar, had moved the audience more deeply than anything that he done that night. Denver smiled and said, “It was something that I learned from Placido. He sang his part with emotion, each word having its own articulation, its own sound, its own emphasis, according to its meaning. ‘Cloud’ and ‘warm’ should be sung differently than ‘storm’ and ‘steel’ and I have tried to do more of that when I perform.” Imagine that! Many people cannot abide the duet and prefer the solo, but the power of Denver’s solo performances derived directly from the collaboration. Domingo helped Denver get inside of his own creations.

There is a point of diminishing returns, however. I write songs to express feelings that I have bubbling up inside of me. Sometimes the feelings are so strong during the composition that I cannot publicly perform the song until I have sung the piece over and over again, pushing the emotions down. Sometimes I get so far inside of a song that I forget what I am doing, even failing to play the chords properly on the guitar. I frequently have to practice a set for months in order to strike a balance between the sentiments and the skills.

When the choir first gathered to practice the three hymns that we are going to sing on Easter, Gordon asked me to talk to the members of the choir about the historical setting for “Peace Be Unto Thy Soul”, a work that he had composed based on a passage of scripture. I did so with some expertise. The effect on the altos, where one of my daughters was performing, was dramatic. Jennifer said afterwards that the women around her could not sing, they were so deeply moved by what I had said. As we rode together to the practice yesterday, Jenny said, “Hey! Gordon didn’t ask you to talk about the hymns this week, did he?” I replied in the negative. “Good,” she said. “I would really like to get through the thing this week.”

Two weeks ago I had no trouble whatsoever singing “Peace Be Unto Thy Soul”. Yesterday, I could not finish the piece at all. My knowledge, my preparation for my little talk two weeks ago, had steeled me somewhat against the power of the lyrics. With that knowledge fading from my mind, my heart unabashedly accepted the significance of what Gordon had written and I was undone. Hopefully I will do better next week and the week after that.

Words mean things. They represent little pieces of who and what we are. They allow us to share the innermost parts of our private sanctuaries with each other. Communication is, in the end, “communion” with all of the power that particular word can convey. We invite others to drink from the living waters of our soul and by so doing we are mutually and eternally bound to each other. If done properly, the union is accompanied by brotherhood and love. I am glad that I know Gordon Jessop.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Perhaps Love

When I first started performing in the early 1960's, the songs that I wanted to play were those of my era. I was not a Beatles fan by any stretch of the imagination. I own all of their music today, but not because I enjoyed them then, but because I have since learned something of musicality from them. I learned Buddy Holly songs. It took me six months before I could play any one of his pieces, but once I did I discovered I could play them all. I remember my friend Bud Peterson saying to me one night after I had played at a Church social, "Well, It was nice that you could play the same song three times tonight." I decided that I needed to expand my repertoire just a little. I settled on folk music, in particular the early music of Bob Dylan. I learned to play guitar in just about the same location in the country that he did, and his music had just a little bit of northern Minnesota stuffed into it, a stuffing that I seemed to enjoy a lot. I went away to Mexico for a couple of years and while I was gone, little Bobby Zimmerman reinvented himself. I found that I was not really in a frame of mind to play and sing his new material.

I was a Peter, Paul, and Mary fan, an Ian and Sylvia fan, a Bud and Travis fan, a Pete Seeger fan, a Joan Baez fan, having no idea as to where they were politically, or even that they were politically active. I just liked the music and the meaningful lyrics that went with them. I suppose that one of my favorite pieces at the time was the "Ballad of Springhill, Nova Scotia" by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacCall. I sang it often as a young folk singer, but there came a time when I just simply did not include it in my sets. I was reminded of it again, however, a year or so ago when the Crandall Canyon mine disaster took the lives of six men initially and then a second collapse killed three of the rescuers. The bodies of the six Utah men were never found. The final lines of MacCall's period piece had application.

Eight days passed and some were rescued,
Leaving the dead to lie alone,
Through all their lives they dug a grave,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone

After returning to Utah, I found myself playing the songs of Gordon Lightfoot, simply because they were beautiful. Others of his pieces I learned because he touched a part of my past. The ore boat "Edmund Fitzgerald" wintered in Duluth, Minnesota, while I lived there and I saw that great ship many times I went over the High Bridge to Superior, Wisconsin. Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is fourteen verses long with a wonderful chord sequence for the guitar. I performed it many times to receptive audiences, especially in the Midwest. I remember being invited by one of my children's elementary school teachers to come perform it for her class. In the middle of my rendition, the woman broke down in tears; one of her relatives had gone down with the ship.

They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

At some point I made a connection with Henry John Deutschendorf and began playing his music, and the music that he borrowed from other songwriters. I guess that it was about that time that I figured that I never needed to become a recording star because everything that I wanted to do and thought that I could do, had been done by this fellow. Of all his songs that I have learned, this one that follows is by far and away my favorite. It was originally released as a duet with Placido Domingo.

Perhaps Love

Perhaps love is like a resting place
A shelter from the storm
It exists to give you comfort
It is there to keep you warm
And in those times of trouble
When you are most alone
The memory of love will bring you home

Perhaps love is like a window
Perhaps an open door
It invites you to come closer
It wants to show you more
And even if you lose yourself
And don`t know what to do
The memory of love will see you through

Oh, love to some is like a cloud
To some as strong as steel
For some a way of living
For some a way to feel
And some say love is holding on
And some say letting go
And some say love is everything
And some say they don`t know

Perhaps love is like the ocean
Full of conflict, full of pain
Like a fire when it`s cold outside
Or thunder when it rains
If I should live forever
And all my dreams come true
My memories of love will be of you

John Denver

I was watching television tonight, after Trillium and I finished another Inspector Morse episode, and one of the PBS stations was presenting a program on Denver's music. In the particular segment I watched, John Denver explained how the song came to be written. He and his wife, Anne Martell from St. Peter, Minnesota, were having troubles in their marriage, a separation had taken place and they were staring down the long, lonely highway of divorce. The song was a tribute to her; in spite of all of the misunderstandings and distresses that they had experienced, she was his real love. That, I think, was the spirit of all of John Denver's music. He had a way of looking at the very worst of situations and finding the very best that could be said. There was talk of a possible reconciliation of their marriage shortly before his accidental death off the coast of California on 12 October 1997.

At the heart of every marriage there are sentiments much like those John Denver had for Anne Martell. We sometimes forget those wonderful sentiments, much like Denver did when he and his wife separated. The trick is to remember, to keep before our minds and hearts, the reasons and the feelings that we had in the beginning. Always.... always... always....

Friday, March 6, 2009

Half of the Story

My two sons have done this little quiz and I decided to do the same. I found that the great fallacy of this exercise is that more frequently than not, I could have answered the questions either way. The "either/or" argument is deceptive. I do believe that there is a large part of my personality that is quit "scientific", but I have stewed in the cauldron of the Humanities so long that I have absorbed much of that flavor. Additionally, I believe that the test assumes a basic "Aristotle/Plato" philosophical dichotomy. What I find interesting in this is, because of my religious background, Platonic philosophy has a more active role in my life than most Aristotelian scientists would like to admit to. I do not find this a confliction; I perceive it as an enhancement.


You Are An INTJ

The Scientist

You have a head for ideas - and you are good at improving systems.
Logical and strategic, you prefer for everything in your life to be organized.
You tend to be a bit skeptical. You're both critical of yourself and of others.
Independent and stubborn, you tend to only befriend those who are a lot like you.

In love, you are always striving to improve your relationship.
You have strong ideas of what love should be like.

At work, you excel in figuring out difficult tasks. People think of you as "the brain."
You would make an excellent scientist, engineer, or programmer.

How you see yourself: Reasonable, knowledgeable, and competent

When other people don't get you, they see you as: Aloof, controlling, and insensitive